To drink or not to drink – that is the question

23 Aug 2013                

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The Siege of Uxellodunu, where the lack of water aided Julius Caesar in attaining victory (Image via Wikipedia)

Do people of the ancient world not drink water?

Now, I have been struck by the “Medieval” plague recently, what with me finally starting on Game of Thrones (currently Season 1, Episode 2 but give me a few days and I’ll be up to date) and spending a lot of time playing Chivalry: Medieval Warfare (a FPS-style PC game set in a medieval world complete with raiding villages, slaying kings, besieging castles and perhaps most memorably – dumping diseased bodies to poison an aquifer). Along the way it got me thinking about the way how water was interacted with in the medieval era. A lot of media portray water as being an insignificant element, great only for scenic backdrops or epic naval battles. But was water irrelevant in those days?

At first glance, it seems that the people of the medieval period did not drink water. The drink of choice for the privileged and wealthy is wine, while at the same time peasants and farmers are confined to ale, cider and beer. Some historical websites (also see here) argue that water was not the drink of choice because of the lack of effective water treatment techniques and the abundance of water-borne diseases. This idea is also propagated in GoT several times (do you recall any of the characters drinking any colourless, non-alcoholic beverage? Didn’t think so) and indeed seems to be a recurring theme in the media’s portrayal of the medieval ages. In videogames based in medieval and medieval fantasy settings, the drink of choice usually seemed to be mead (Anyone fancies a bottle from the famed Honningbrew Meadery of Skyrim?)

However, some websites (also see here) argue that water was indeed the drink of choice. However, people still referred to consume alcohol and other flavoured beverages, similar somewhat to societies today. This idea that water is important is backed up indirectly somewhat by medieval armies who practised scorched earth tactics and poisoned fresh water supplies by typically by dumping dead bodies into them.

A specific example can be seen in 51 BC, when Julius Caesar besieged the Gaelic city fortress of Uxellodunum. Preliminary reports suggested the Gauls were well dug in, but were required to leave the safety of the walled city to acquire water from the nearby river.  Julius Caesar stationed archers to snipe – for the lack of a better word – peasants who went to the riverbanks to collect water. To cut a long story short, the defenders eventually surrendered after running out of water.

All in all, it can be safely surmised that water was important in the past and that people still drank water regularly, despite media portrayals of the popularity of alcohol in the ancient world.

By Clarke Kent

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